Two-year-old Olive Heiligenthal wasn’t raised from the dead. She fell asleep in her bed two weeks ago, and never woke up.
For six days, Bethel Church in Redding, California, and its followers prayed for Olive to be raised from the dead—singing, dancing, and declaring what they believed was God’s will, following the lead of Olive’s mother Kalley Heiligenthal, who wrote to her more than 250,000 Instagram followers, “Her time here is not done.” In an official statement, Bethel Church’s pastor, Bill Johnson, agreed. The popular but controversial church invited the world to ask God to #WakeUpOlive. But Olive didn’t wake up. Late on Friday, Dec. 20, Bethel Church announced that the family would begin planning a memorial service.
The events raise an important question: How do those suffering understand their pain when no miracles come? When sickness isn’t cured and children aren’t raised from the dead? What happens when our churches, songs, and social media posts place such a strong emphasis on declaring the removal of suffering rather than God’s willing solidarity with it? Shame.
I heard the news of Olive Heiligenthal’s death on the morning of Dec. 16, while I sat letting a Zofran pill dissolve on my tongue to quell the nausea swirling in my body. I had just taken my weekly injection of chemotherapy for what my doctors describe as an incurable disease, one I’ve had for 11 years despite ardent prayer for healing. Bethel’s pastor, Bill Johnson, believes it is always God’s will to heal. So where does my life fit within God’s will?
On his website, Johnson states, “How can God choose not to heal someone when He already purchased their healing?” Johnson continues, “He already decided to heal … There are no deficiencies on His end … All lack is on our end of the equation.”
I live in the tension of a body that, to many who follow this thinking, appears to contradict God’s plan, chained to lifelong chemotherapy and immunotherapy perhaps because I have not accessed enough of the Spirit’s power.
I dwell in the mystery that here—in this broken body, in the center of my deficiency—I’ve most come to know the presence of Christ (Rom. 8:17). My body hasn’t been a barrier to knowing the miracle of God’s love; it’s been the brutal, beautiful place where I’ve found I’m already united to the God who came and is coming again.
As a therapist, I’ve counseled many clients whose diseases and disorders have not been healed—people who live with lifelong depression, pernicious anxiety, far-reaching effects from trauma and abuse, and autoimmune diseases that fill each day with pain. Despite all the determination and devotion in the world, they cannot eliminate their fragility with faith.
As I mourn for the Heiligenthal family, I also grieve for Christians who feel shackled by the shame of not receiving a miracle, who remain confused rather than comforted. We live in the tension of believing miracles happen while understanding that they’re not guaranteed.
But the seedbed of our renewed hope is not simply declaring victory over death; it is finding God weeps with us in sorrow. Shame happens when we largely treat suffering like a problem to fix rather than a story to tell.
Hearing the story of Olive, author Shannan Martin reflected on the shame of realizing as a kid that her faith wasn’t effectual to resurrect a friend’s body, “When I was young another child close to me died and there was a lot of energy around praying for his resurrection. When it didn’t happen, it was because ‘someone’s faith was not strong enough.’ I knew I was the one. I was 8 years old.”
Psychiatrist and trauma expert Judith Lewis Herman has written that “Shame is always implicitly a relational experience.” As researcher Brené Brown has described, shame is the felt sense that we are bad, that there really is something wrong with us.
According to psychiatrist Curt Thompson, shame hijacks our bodies, disintegrating the lower and upper regions of our brains, disconnecting us from the parts of ourselves God made to help us access hope, meaning, and trust.
As Thompson has elucidated in The Soul of Shame, shame is the primary biological force that evil uses to disrupt and disconnect us from one another and the reality of God’s love. When our faith isn’t strong enough to remove suffering or conquer death, we often feel deep shame over our insufficiency, an experience that gets reinforced by Christian culture’s over-emphasis on the power of faith to produce healing. Suffering is often treated like something worth praying away rather than a meaningful experience through which we might all better know the God who chose to suffer. When suffering lingers, we often become isolated in shame, suffering silently and privately instead of being pitied or further shamed by endless prayers for healing.
As I’ve previously explored for CT, God wired our brains to need one another. Faith is an embodied experience shaped by the worshiping, lamenting, imperfect bodies around us. Through what psychologists have described as social cognitive extension, our faith is enhanced and formed—or perhaps, malformed—by the mental network existing in the physical presence of other believers, the practices and liturgies by which we worship God, and even the messages we encounter and share across social media.
When Christians predominantly focus our faith on signs and wonders, we are discipled to view our physicality and places of pain, including disease and death, as problems God can fix rather than places he is already present. Perhaps our faith shackles rather than shelters, without our awareness, when we resist being held in the tension between the cross and resurrection, preferring rescue to resilience and miracles to the mundane. A faith that declares and demands immediate relief and resurrection when God has already promised the redemption of our bodies when Jesus returns (1 Cor. 15:20-28).
Shame rises and takes shape in the spaces between us—whether in church, private conversations, or on social media—whispering that stories where God sustains us in sorrow aren’t as worth telling or living as the stories shining with wonders. The good news is grace rises in the space between us too.
The space we hold to bear witness to weakness and death rather than simply declaring their removal directly shapes every saint’s maturity to behold our Living Hope (1 Peter 1:3-9). Brown’s shame resilience theory, which is based on extensive interviews with 215 women, has profound implications for the church. We become resilient not by denying the reality of brokenness or our feelings of vulnerability and shame but by naming them within relationships of safety and empathy. When we create space to lament and to tell our stories in the context of empathy and safety, our brains are rewired toward health.
A theology like that of Bethel Church seeks and declares power and authority in Christ in order to bring the kingdom of God. Declaring power over death is alluring—suffering and death do sting. But the demonstration of God’s love wasn’t a seizure of power by proclamation but a surrender of status. God became human, with eyes that would cry, blood that would spill, and a heart that would stop beating, to show us love that will last (John 1:14). Faith is not bypassing our broken bodies by exerting the majority of our emotional energy powerfully pleading for healing or resurrection or dutifully analyzing what sin caused our suffering or purpose God has in our pain.
Christ’s descent is the real pattern Scripture gives us for living in the middle of a story where victory is certain but unfolding. Christ comes right in the midst of our pain and powerlessness so we can know his presence. When we belong to Jesus, the paradoxical path to flourishing is finding our weakness where God’s power is perfected (2 Cor. 12:9).
The gospel offers a better story than power, read not simply in black letters on white pages, but in the bodies of believers, words made flesh in the places of our powerlessness. The seeds of Christ’s life and resurrection are planted in the sowing of shared tears and the resonance that happens when one right brain communicates empathy to another. Grace rises and reaches toward us, not only in power but in the space of grief between us.
Ours is a God of the miraculous and the mundane. I pray that as we share in the grief of the Heiligenthal family and their community, we will be strengthened with clarity and conviction that God doesn’t only save—he sustains.
K.J. Ramsey is a therapist, writer, and recovering idealist who believes sorrow and joy coexist. Her first book, This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers, releases with Zondervan in May 2020 and is available for preorder now.